EU Enlargement Commissioner Štefan Füle assured Turkey on 12 July that the European Union was committed to the Muslim country becoming a full member, saying that ways of accelerating the process would be worked on.
"There should be a zero doubt policy about our commitment," Füle told a joint news conference with Turkish ministers in Istanbul. "We have a very clear mandate from member states."
Turkey is irked by the slow progress in formal negotiations begun five years ago.
"We will be looking at ways we can speed up the accession process," Füle said. "No one is happy at the current speed."
EU foreign affairs chief Catherine Ashton and Füle met Turkey's Foreign Minister Ahmet Davuto?lu and EU Affairs Minister Egemen Ba??? for a first set of talks under a new political dialogue process meant to bring the two sides closer together.
Turks suspect some EU states of foot-dragging due to their reluctance to let in a Muslim nation, whose membership would mean the EU losing a buffer between itself and the Middle East.
Out of 35 chapters – subject areas for negotiation prior to EU entry – Turkey has completed one and opened 13 others, leaving 21 to go (see EURACTIV LinksDossier on EU-Turkey relations).
All but three are blocked, mainly due to an impasse over the divided island of Cyprus, an EU member whose government has obstructed Turkey's progress over Ankara's support for Turkish Cypriots, who broke away from their Greek counterparts.
Turkey is backing reunification efforts, and wants the EU to lift its embargo in the Turkish north of the island, while the EU expects Turkey to open its ports and airports to traffic from Cyprus.
Füle gave his backing to the government's proposed package of constitutional changes that Turks will vote upon in a referendum on 12 September.
He said the package met the EU's expectations on a number of issues and described it as a positive step in the framework of Turkey's candidacy for membership.
Most of the proposed changes are uncontroversial, but the government's plans to change the way senior judges are appointed has triggered a debate over whether it contravenes the principle of separation of powers.
Critics of Prime Minister Tayyip Erdo?an's AK Party say it is an attempt to take control of the judiciary, which is regarded as the strongest bastion of Turkey's secularists.
The AK Party's critics suspect the party of harbouring a secret agenda to roll back secularist ways established by the modern republic's founder, Mustapha Kemal Atatürk.
The party denies having any such plans, and sees itself as a Muslim version of socially conservative Christian Democrat parties in Europe.
(EURACTIV with Reuters.)
The chairman of the Economic Development Foundation, Prof. Dr. Halûk Kabaalio?lu, evaluated the visit to Turkey of Catherine Ashton, the EU's High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, and Stefan Füle, EU commissioner for enlargement and the European Neighborhood Policy.
Kabaalio?lu said the visit was particularly crucial as it took place just after the entry into force of the Lisbon Treaty, which revised the EU's legal basis, and followed the emergence of major regional issues such as the floatilla crisis with Israel.
Stating that "the main objective of the meeting is to reaffirm the EU's commitment to Turkey's accession process," Kabaalio?lu continued by saying "in this context, I would like to remind that EU membership is a state policy for Turkey which has been going on since 1959. The cyclical changes cannot alter such a deeply rooted policy, which also refers to the path the country has taken".
Kabaalio?lu also mentioned that Turkey will play a big role in the future of the EU, as acknowledged already by many statesmen and decision-makers including Ruprecht Polenz, chairman of the German parliament's foreign affairs committee, Michel Rocard, former prime minister of France and Jean-Luc Dehaene, former prime minister of Belgium.
Lastly, the chairman highlighted the importance of the EU for Turkey given its objectives on democracy, economic and social welfare and reaching the same level as other contemporary civilisations.
He said Turkey's commitment to EU reforms should be maintained and, by following a path based on the supremacy of law and democracy, that the Turkish government should show the same kind of dynamism that it pursued on foreign affairs, in particular with regard to the Middle East.
Ümit Boyner, president of TÜS?AD, the Turkish Industry and Business Association, spoke of the importance of EU-Turkey relations for the European Union at the European Business Summit in Brussels.
"The steps taken by Turkey have been very dynamic since the start of the accession process. Unfortunately, however, we see some kind of slowdown where it is civil society's job to give weight to that process again," she explained.
"There is increasing awareness in Turkey on the need for full democratisation. The debate now encompasses the whole of society and this will be instrumental in energising the process," she added.
Identifying awareness as key to applying pressure for further reforms in the country, Boyner cited the areas where she expected change to come in the future. "High-level democracy and a pluralist society are essential for sustained growth and competitiveness. We cannot envisage anything else," she said.
"This is why we need to address our electoral system and political party system in order to ensure accountability at the right levels. We also definitely need to re-write our constitution in order to encompass all the Copenhagen criteria," she said.
Insisting that Turkey and the EU share the same concerns in the wake of the financial crisis, Boyner identified the areas of the Europe 2020 strategy to which Turkey could contribute the most.
"We want to put this competitiveness as Turkey's number one priority as well, focusing on the democratisation and micro- and macro-reforms that are needed. It is very difficult to pinpoint one area of the 2020 strategy, but I think that Turkey's demographic factors affecting unemployment are an issue to deal with. Innovation is also going to be part of the solution," she said.
"All issues from education to social adjustments are interdependent. We need to work on all the factors that can support our competitiveness in a sustainable way in the new world," she concluded.
The EU opened membership talks with Turkey in October 2005, but a number of stumbling blocks remain on Ankara's road to EU accession, in particular concerning trade links with Cyprus, freedom of expression and the rights of the Kurdish minority.
Throughout Europe, the arguments that surround Turkey's accession bid revolve around a series of issues, whether demographical, geographical or political.
One argument is that Turkey would become the EU's most populous member state if and when it were to join the EU. Turkey's current population is estimated at 74 million, a figure which is predicted to increase to 80-85 million in the next 20 years. This is comparable to that of the EU's largest current member state, Germany, which has 83 million people today, but whose population is projected to decrease to around 80 million by 2020.
Perhaps the most sensitive of all arguments centres on cultural and religious differences. Since the EU identifies itself as a cultural and religious mosaic that recognises and respects diversity, supporters of Turkey's EU bid believe that, as long as both Turkey and the EU member states maintain this common vision, cultural and religious differences should be irrelevant.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy is firmly opposed to Turkish membership of the EU, claiming that "Europe has been lying about its borders. Turkey is in Asia Minor and not in Europe". Sarkozy believes Europe should suspend accession talks with Turkey and instead work towards a "privileged partnership".
The European Union should not narrow the scope of its foreign policy cooperation with Turkey at a time when this country has shown a will to conduct a foreign policy that is not necessarily in line with those of the EU, Enlargement and Neighbourhood Policy Commissioner Štefan Füle told EURACTIV in a recent interview (EURACTIV 01/07/10).
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